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The new and highly contagious delta variant of the coronavirus may have sparked the recent outbreak of 125-plus cases of COVID-19 linked to a Houston-area youth church camp, and a Texas virologist says the breakout should be a wake-up call for communities.
“Clearly, COVID is not over,” said Dr. Benjamin Neuman, a virologist and professor at Texas A&M University.
“COVID isn’t ever gone until it’s completely gone,” Neuman said. “And I think we’ve made the mistake of assuming that the virus would go away or assuming that the virus wouldn’t affect children … We keep stumbling into the same mistakes over and over, and that is not a way out of COVID-19.”
The Galveston County church’s camp took place in June with more than 450 adults and youth in attendance, according to the Houston Chronicle. More than 125 COVID-19 cases have been reported, of which three thus far have been confirmed to be the delta variant.
The delta variant is poised to become the leading variant in the United States in coming months according to Texas health experts, whose top concern is the risk it represents for those who are unvaccinated.
That variant, known by scientists as B.1.617.2, now accounts for about a quarter of virus infections in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. First discovered in India, it triggered a devastating outbreak there in April and May and has since spread to 85 other countries, attacking areas where vaccination rates are the lowest.
While dozens of variants have spawned from the original COVID-19 virus, the delta variant is the most transmissible so far, said Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease epidemiologist and assistant professor at Texas A&M University's School of Public Health. It is also leading to higher rates of hospitalization for those infected, according to research.
Fischer called the variant “a perfect storm of a variant” because of how easily it can pass from person to person. Because of limited testing, there is little concrete information about its prevalence in Texas. However, Fischer said there’s a clear way to prevent uncontrollable surges: vaccinations.
As of July 4, according to The Texas Tribune’s COVID-19 tracker, about 41.5% of Texans had been fully vaccinated. That compares to the current national rate of 47% for complete vaccinations, according to the CDC. But rates of administered shots in Texas have slowed in the past few months — at a time when Fischer says protection is needed more than ever.
“Don’t let your guard down,” she said. “We’re so close to getting our lives back, and we are, in some way, moving in that direction … but this is another curveball by this virus.”
Here’s what is known about the delta variant so far.
What is the delta variant?
Proteins on the outer spikes of the delta variant are “stickier,” making it more transmissible than other variants, said Dr. Katelyn Jetelina, an epidemiologist at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Dallas.
"It’s more contagious,” she said. “The key change about this variant is that it has a better way of getting into our cells and latching onto them.”
Studies have shown that the delta variant is up to 60% more transmissible than the previously leading variant, the alpha variant — and the percent of COVID-19 tests coming back positive in the past seven days is 5.53%, compared to 4.35% seven days prior.
A study from Scotland found that the hospitalization rate of those who contracted the delta variant was about 85% higher than those fighting the alpha variant.
The variant's symptoms more resemble those of a cold — headaches, sore throat, runny nose and fevers — than common COVID-19 symptoms such as coughing and loss of smell, according to the Covid Symptom Study, a project by doctors and scientists to track the symptoms and spread of the virus.
Where is the delta variant in Texas?
The delta variant has already planted itself in several cities across the state, including Houston and Dallas, according to the Chronicle and The Dallas Morning News.
But the number of delta cases in Texas is “sorely underestimated,” Fischer said, because of a lack of testing for variants.
Regular COVID-19 tests do not detect which variant is involved, which requires genomic sequencing, a process separate from regular virus tests and one that not all labs are able to do. Neuman, the virologist at Texas A&M University, said sequencing is rare and can cost up to $100 per test.
“So it’s expensive, and it doesn’t really improve patient care,” Neuman said. “It’s a good thing to know for public health people, but knowing the kind of strain wouldn’t change the way we treat a person.”
Sequencing takes about six weeks to process, he added.
The Texas Department of State Health Services is aware of 15 labs in Texas that have detected the delta variant. However, labs are not required to report sequencing results to the agency, “so there may be additional labs conducting sequences that are not reporting their results to public health,” the agency said in a statement.
According to DSHS’s dashboard, which tracks the number of cases across the state by variants, 120 of the 4,982 sequencing tests, or 2.4% of the cases, found the delta variant.
“This is not a comprehensive count of variant cases on this page and we have explained in many interviews that only a small sample of cases are sent for sequencing,” the statement read.
Do I need to be worried if I’m vaccinated?
Vaccines appear to retain high levels of protection against the delta variant, according to research.
Jetelina, the UTHealth epidemiologist, said the Pfizer vaccine offers around 87% protection against the variant and the Moderna vaccine results are similar to Pfizer’s. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also retains much of its efficacy against the delta variant at around 60%, according to recent research.
Those who are fully vaccinated, however, can still be carriers of the delta, Fischer emphasized.
“This is why vaccination is so key,” Fischer said. “It could travel around those who are vaccinated, but they won’t get sick. But then once it reaches someone who is unvaccinated, that’s when it could really permeate.”
DSHS said it recommends people protect themselves from the variant the same way they do for other variants of the virus.
“The best protection from all strains of COVID is getting fully vaccinated,” the statement said. “People who are not vaccinated should continue to follow COVID precautions, like wearing a mask and social distancing.”
Though the CDC says people who are fully vaccinated do not have to wear masks in public spaces, Neuman is pleading for everyone to continue wearing them, especially with the delta variant spreading in Texas.
“The only confirmed cases that we know are cases that spread through the air,” he said, and those are “from somebody’s mouth to somebody else’s mouth.'' Because of that, “blocking one or both of those mouths is really the ultimate way to stop the virus from spreading.”
Disclosure: Texas A&M University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.